Imaginary Games – Book Review

You were absolutely correct: Deliverance for the 3DS does not exist. People seemed upset by that—only natural, I suppose…nobody likes falseness forced upon them. And yet, might there have been some good in it? Consider this: the people who seemed most offended by Deliverance 3D’s—should we say—questionable ontological presence were the same people who, before the title was deemed fake, seemed most excited that such a game could exist at all. It was for this very reason that I had refused to present the review as “parody” in the first place: I wanted people to perceive “fiction” as “truth,” just for a moment, so that in the latter’s sudden shuddering away they might be all the more determined to make such things exist in the future.

“If fiction is false, then everything that gives life value is false.”

Coincidentally, this week I’ve been scheduled to write a review of Imaginary Games, the new book from game designer Chris Bateman, due out November 25th. (And yes, it actually exists this time.) I say “coincidentally” because it is this very subject—the gameable nature of reality—that Bateman’s newest work seems most interested in exploring: “Fiction is more than the foundation of art and games,” he writes, “…it is essential to maintaining our moral notions [and] deeply connected with our experience of reality.” Bateman, who is perhaps best known for the 1999 game Discworld Noir, is no stranger to writing deeply and thoughtfully about games. But while his previous three books focused on the objective here’s-some-tactics-to-employ-when-developing-games, with Imaginary Games Chris has opted to tackle the Beast Of Game Design from the outside-in—by revealing the gameness of the actual, the game beyond games.

“Perhaps the most devastating tragedy in recent centuries was that which condemned both mythology and fiction to become synonyms for falsehood.”

How effective is Bateman’s approach? Well, I guess that just depends on what kind of person you are. Bateman divides the world into two types of people, based almost exclusively around one’s individual preference for either concrete or abstract language. The first group, those Bateman would refer to as concrete-minded, which is to mean those whose imaginations typically require concrete, real-world detail, will probably pass on this book. They shouldn’t, but they will. Why? Because Imaginary Games isn’t 100 Tips To Making Badass Games. Bateman’s written the closest he’ll ever get to that kind of book several times over already. No, this book is for that second group of people, the abstract-minded—who Bateman describes as being prototypically D&D fans—and as one of them I can honestly say that you’ll find the ideas contained within Imaginary Games both intriguing and revelatory.

“However, because there are so many more people for who concrete language-use is more natural, there is always a danger of imposing literal, historical interpretations of stories which by their nature should instead constitute a living mythology.”

According to Bateman, our common perceptions of “reality” and “fiction” can be grounded in another, often-overlooked facet of human experience: make-believe. Central to this task is Kendall Walton’s Make-Believe Theory of Representation, which was conceived of to help understand children at play on a philosophical level, and which Bateman masterfully adapts to videogames. In doing so, he finds himself with an array of fresh and interesting ways to approach the subject of videogames, with results that will appeal to abstract- and concrete-minds alike. And even in those moments when Bateman’s focus shifts towards something “bigger” than videogames, his outside-in methodology assures us that, sooner or later, he will return to them.

“The world of art seems akin to play undertaken in seriousness, play that has acquired a kind of cultural gravitas and esteem. As M.C. Escher put the matter: ‘My art is a game, a very serious game.’”

Oh but for the hell of it let’s give you big panorama…Divided into seven parts, Imaginary Games’ gradual progression away from itself has a subtle enough curve to please most everyone: Games sets the stage, giving newcomer’s that broad, sweeping view of game philosophy, before dropping them off into the biology and art of play; Imagination and Props explore the similarities between videogames and make-believe, the former concentrating on the nuts and bolts, and the latter diving headfirst into the concepts of props and dolls—two terms that’s distinction serves as one of the highlights of the book; Fictional Worlds sees the videogame focus begin to slip to the back of Bateman’s mind, as he begins to collapse our perceptions of the gameworld and the actual world, in favor of applying the “gameness” of both to other subjects; Participation examines the interrelationship of functional emotions and representational emotions in games as well as other mediums, further twining the gameworld in the actual, and vice versa; Ethics takes this one step further to discuss how the “tension between the values of the player-subject and the values of the player outside of the game create a unique opportunity for ethical reflection,” and links the primary component of the moral perspective to stories–which videogames fundamentally are.

But it is in Virtual Worlds that Bateman’s real purpose shines through unfettered: By framing art, experience, and videogames in terms of kayfabe (a professional wrestling term for portraying events as “real”) Bateman “reveals” the various facets of our lives that are determined by make-believe…History, math, science. Though the terminology of make-believe remains intact, readers will find that the word “videogame” has vanished entirely…In its place we find that all has become a game–truth, fiction, video, experience. If you can name it, it’s a game.

* * *

A word of caution: Bateman isn’t saying, “Reality is fake.” Rather, by exposing the “gameness” of the world outside of videogames, Bateman asks that we re-conceptualize the world and games alike; to see that game development isn’t just the translation of reality, but the translation of a translation…and so on, and so forth. And though Imaginary Game’s purpose is ultimately far greater than videogames, the sting of realization should not be above those only interested in them. There is no doubt in my mind that by collapsing the philosophy of the “dire” inward, art will benefit. And by finding games in the real world and the real world in games, Bateman does just that.


—based on an advanced copy of Imaginary Games, praise be to Zero Books and Chris Bateman.


  1. Great review. I’m looking forward to picking up Bateman’s new book.

  2. Ava Avane Dawn

    Sounds wonderfully hyper-really. But yes, without a doubt, there is a set “translation” that becomes invisible and taken for granted when another translation is added on top of it. It’s the notions of “real” in Baudrillard that disturb me the most.

  3. I’ve been reading Bateman’s book since I got an advance version in July, and I have been recommending it to people on a pretty regular basis.

    I have some serious reservations with his approach which I won’t go into the detail of here, except to say that I think the weakness in his argument is a too simplistic conception of ‘representation’. There’s an anecdote that he uses of a hobby-horse “representing” a (or standing in for an imaginary) horse for a child. It seems to me both too quick and easy to go from “it looks a bit like a horse” to saying “it represents a horse”.

    • Well, the anecdote was Ernst Gombrich’s, though Bateman *does* (along with Kendall Walton) agree with its conclusions.

      As for being too quick and easy, I’m not so sure of that: holding your thumb up and your index finger out represents a gun simply because it “looks a bit like” a gun–just try to pull it on a cop or bank teller. We might say that this is because it has become culturally recognized as a threat, and we’d be partially correct. As children, however, we use it for a different reason: because it is the “minimum image” that fits the “psychological lock” of a gun. It isn’t an equivalent of a gun (in that it won’t fire); it also isn’t a picture of a gun (not in any sense but the abstract, which leads us to…); it is a representation of a gun–just cuz it looks a bit like and “feels” like one.

      Gombrich likens this phenomenon to “counterfeit coins which make the machine work when dropped in the slot.” The reason representations “work” is because our brains are hard-wired to keep energy expenditure to a minimum, and thus exceedingly good at detecting like “shapes” (visual, feelable, auditory) in order to cut down on “noise.”

      Or perhaps I’m just not understanding your issue yet.

      • Right, so that’s a really good illustration of what I’m talking about – the finger-pointed-like-a-gun thing.

        Go do that to a person in a culture or society that has never be exposed to that cultural meme and suddenly your finger-pointing-as-a-gun doesn’t mean anything to them. Does it still even *look* like a gun? Our hypothetical civilization might even have knowledge of guns but hasn’t ever seen anyone make the gun motion – maybe their “gun” motion is an opening and closing of the hand like the muzzle flash or something – and to them THAT “looks like” and “feel like” a gun. “Pointing your fingers? Why’s that look like a gun?” they say until we try and point out some kind of material correspondence with select parts of a gun and it’s operation.

        We’d like to say that it does still look like a gun, but unless we can say something about an actual quantifiable amount of shape/size/material/colour/noise (see all these material differences we’re already ignoring to make this representational claim?) it takes to “look like” a gun with our fingers we’re going to already be implicated – we’re exposed to this representation already and we can’t unsee it! Of *course* pointing fingers looks like a gun to us – because that’s what we’ve seen people do. But just look at all those other criteria by which the finger-gun fails to correspond to a material gun. We’ve got to do some serious mental abstraction to get there…

        Bateman’s whole project in Imaginary Games is to escape the “a game is what we point to when we say that is a game” post-hoc description (that usually relies on, surprise, implicit cultural/social expectations), and yet here he is relying on representation that can only do the same thing. WHY does the two fingers pointed look like a gun? “just cuz it looks a bit like and “feels” like one.” BAM. Well, to us, yes, but this kind of thing can only ever be post-hoc. You’ll never be able to say proscriptively whether that “feel” or “look” will be present or not before it exits or doesn’t exist without the above materialist conception of representation. He needs a theory of representation that is more quantifiable for his theory to hold. Otherwise he’s just shifted (hidden) the assumptions a level deeper that before…

        Now, that’s not to say that his approach is not a *good* post-hoc description but the main opening section of the book is about how dissatisfied Bateman is with post-hoc descriptive definitions of ‘What is a game?’. He actually persuaded me that this might be a problem, but his answer did not convince me.